The Corporate Polluters Bankrolling Voter Suppression
Lauren Goldberg,
Daniel Faber
June 23, 2022
Allison Bailey via Shutterstock

Corporate polluters provide enormous financial resources to state and federal lawmakers sponsoring voter suppression legislation and the rollback of our voting rights. At the Global Center for Climate Justice, we followed the money trail of corporate polluters, and found that these companies are providing tens of millions of dollars to the organizations and politicians promoting the rollback of our voting rights. The findings are presented in our new report, Voter Suppression, Climate Justice, and the Polluter-Industrial Complex: How the Corporate Assault on American Democracy and the Climate Are Connected. Below are some of the key findings of the report.

Manufacturing an Oil-ligarchy

America’s democracy is under assault. The past five years have witnessed the greatest rollback of voting rights since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The enactment of targeted voter ID restrictions, reductions in the hours and numbers of polling places, the intentional weakening of mail-in voting, the use of gerrymandering to manipulate the allocation of congressional seats, the disenfranchisement of incarcerated individuals, the replacement of non-partisan with extremist Right-wing electoral officials, and the wrongful purging of voters from the rolls are all examples of various strategies being successfully employed in this offensive. But not all citizens are impacted the same. Instead, the rollback of voting rights intentionally and disproportionately impacts people of color and younger voters – all overwhelmingly Democratic, pro-environment, and pro-climate action voters. 

The impacts of this assault are chilling. Between 2016 and 2018 alone, over 17 million people were purged from voting rolls nationwide. In 2021, more than 440 bills across 49 states were introduced to hijack the election process and suppress the right to vote, namely for people of color and young people. Some 18 states actually passed 34 laws restricting access to voting. As stated by the Brennan Center for Justice, one of the premier independent and non-partisan policy organizations in the country, “These numbers are extraordinary: state legislatures enacted far more restrictive voting laws” than at any other time this century. Such attacks continue to escalate. Lawmakers in 39 states are considering at least 393 restrictive bills for the 2022 legislative session. 

So, how is the rollback of our voting rights linked to climate justice? In short, the assault on American democracy is spearheaded by the Republican Party, conservative billionaires, and the most environmentally destructive corporations in America. Termed the polluter-industrial complex (PIC) by Senior Research Fellow Daniel Faber, these are the sectors of Big Business that would stand to profit the most from a weakening of environmental regulations, public health and safety measures, and climate change legislation.

The oil and gas industry stands at the top of the list, along with tobacco companies, petrochemical corporations, agribusiness, utilities, timber and mining interests, railroads and automobile manufacturers, and other heavily regulated corporate polluters. It also includes other industries, like insurance, that are heavily invested in fossil fuels. They are among the leading industries pouring money into anti-environmental and climate change denial organizations – all in an effort to thwart meaningful action on climate change and the ecological crisis.

As outlined in the report, many of the same corporate polluters promoting climate change “denialism” are also bankrolling the politicians and organizations leading voter suppression efforts targeting people of color. The reason is simple: Indigenous, Asian-American, Black, and Brown communities are at the forefront of the struggle for environmental protection and climate justice. To politically disempower these communities of color serves the economic interests of the polluter-industrial complex and the political interests of the Republican Party (and some corporate Democrats as well). Voter suppression enables business-friendly politicians whose campaigns are bankrolled by corporate polluters to gain control over the state and thwart environmental and climate justice movements, economic equality, women’s rights, and racial justice. In essence, the polluter-industrial complex is manufacturing an OIL-igarchy in place of our democracy.

Under the guise of “stopping voter fraud,” for instance, restrictive voter identification (ID) measures are being instituted in red states across the country. The push for voter ID laws is based on a false claim: voter fraud is widespread in the United States. All reputable studies have concluded that levels of such fraud in this country are virtually non-existent. The most comprehensive investigation of voter impersonation found only 31 different incidents of voter fraud in general, primary, special, and municipal elections from 2000 through 2014. In the general and primary elections alone in the U.S., more than 1 billion ballots were cast during this time. In fact, the Brennan Center has found instances of voter fraud to be so exceedingly rare that it is more likely that an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”

The polluter-industrial complex (PIC) is a highly sophisticated political infrastructure created by the most ecologically destructive sectors of American business. It is committed to the rollback and/or prevention of strong environmental regulations, environmental justice programs, public health and safety measures, and climate change legislation. The PIC is especially committed to merchandising “climate denialism” vis-à-vis corporate propaganda campaigns designed to sow the seeds of doubt among the general public, media, and policymakers, claiming that climate change is not real, and/or that it poses no threat to the country. 

Railroad companies are an important example of a major corporate member of the PIC. Railroads are significant corporate sponsors of climate denialism and lawmakers supporting voter suppression measures. For nearly three decades, the four largest rail companies  — the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and CSX — have spent tens of millions of dollars trying to convince the American public that climate change is not a threat (and could even be beneficial), all in an effort to block climate policy. 

Fossil fuels are an enormous source of profit for the railroads. Nearly 70 percent of American coal is shipped by rail, and coal comprises almost one of every three tons of all rail freight. The larger railroads made a combined $10.7 billion, or 14 percent of their profits, in the transportation of fossil fuels in 2018. As members of America’s Power (formerly the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity) – a pro-coal lobbying group that promotes the “social benefits” of carbon pollution. CS, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific have donated at least $3 million to the organization since 2012. They have given at least $28 million to at least six other climate-denial organizations, such as the National Association of Manufacturers (also part of the polluter-industrial complex), plotting to block federal climate policy. 

The railroad industry contributes millions of dollars to thwarting meaningful climate change legislation in order to protect their profits and current business model. They benefit at the expense of low-income communities of color all across the country, posing significant environmental health dangers to residents. These environmental justice communities are the most vulnerable to the released pollution, so they tend to vote in favor of climate action. This community thus threatens the railroad industry’s profits, giving them motive to participate in climate change countermovement. As a central player in corporate coalitions working to undermine climate change regulations and protect the fossil fuel industry’s profits, companies like BNSF ($300,820) and Union Pacific ($243,050) are also among the largest corporate donors to state lawmakers supporting voter suppression bills since 2015.

All together, there are at least 128 organizations that make up the core political infrastructure of the PIC. They include: (1) trade associations such as American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM); (2) corporate lobbying groups and climate opposition coalitions (such as the Cooler Heads Coalition); (3) astroturf organizations that appear to be grassroots citizen groups but are actually corporate-fronts; (4) public relations firms; (5) corporate and family-based foundations; and (6) anti-environmental think tanks, research centers, and policy institutes. The policy institutes are either: (a) large multi-issue organizations (such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation) broadly committed to advancing conservative causes, including an anti-environmental and anti-climate change agenda; or (b) organizations (such as the Heartland Institute) more specifically focused on attacking climate change policy and environmental protection per se.

Front Groups for Voter Suppression and Climate Inaction

According to the award-winning investigative reporter Jane Mayer with The New Yorker, leaked records of their internal deliberations reveal that PIC-funded policy organizations have coordinated efforts to draft and support state laws that also make it harder to vote, especially for those citizens living in poorer communities of color. Moreover, as reported by Mayer, they are also subverting the integrity of future elections by helping to strip secretaries of state and other independent election officials of their powers necessary to ensure fairness in the electoral process.

Leaders in this effort to impose new voting restrictions include the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., where the voter suppression advocate Hans Von Spakovsky has managed their Election Law Reform Initiative. Another is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which produces model laws and policies for state governments, and the Federalist Society, a legal organization working to fill the courts with conservative anti-environmental judges. The Honest Elections Project, which is tied to Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, has filed briefs at the Supreme Court and in numerous states, opposing mail-in ballots and other reforms that have made it easier for working people and people of color to vote.

These organizations are handsomely rewarded by the fossil fuel industry for their efforts. Between 1997-2015, ExxonMobil alone provided over $9.2 million to the Heritage Foundation, Federalist Society, ALEC, as well as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). CEI claims that “climate change does not endanger the survival of civilization or the habitability of the planet,” and works to stop climate change legislation. CEI’s Myron Ebell, Chair of the Cooler Heads Coalition, led the effort to convince President Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate treaty.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) deserves special attention here. ALEC is a key recipient of oil and gas money, including Marathon Petroleum, Koch Industries, and Peabody Energy, among others. ALEC receives over 90 percent of its funding from corporations and corporate foundations. More than a year before the 2020 election, ALEC created a secret “working group” on election issues that would address redistricting, ballot measures, and election law, working to create model legislation to further voter suppression efforts.

At the state level, Republican lawmakers are pushing around 250 bills around the country that would make voting in future elections more difficult, particularly for Black, Brown, and Native Americans, and other people of color who tend to align themselves with Democratic candidates. From 2015 to 2020, core corporations within the PIC contributed $5 million to state legislators supporting voter suppression bills. Trade Groups gave another $36 million. In Georgia, a state infamously known for its voter suppression legislation, total contributions from corporate America totaled nearly $11 million between 2015-2020. This financial support went to the 81 political supporters of 26 voter suppression bills introduced in the state as of March 1, 2021. Eleven companies alone from the PIC provided over $2.8 million of these funds, and include the fossil fuel giants Koch Industries ($293,000); Exelon Corp ($207,550); ExxonMobil ($131,250); Chevron ($116,200); Marathon Petroleum ($205,365); and Dominion Energy ($280,050).

The think tanks and resource centers supported by the oil and gas industry have been among the most vocal supporters of efforts to weaken our democratic institutions. For example, during the insurrection and attack on the Capitol Building, the climate denial website Climate Depot tweeted, “Striking fear in politicians is not a bad thing,” and [quoting Thomas Jefferson] “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Climate Depot is run by the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a climate-denying think tank funded by the fossil fuel industry.

The PIC is especially adept at channeling huge sums of money to the campaign chests of federal and state politicians actively supporting the attack on voting rights and our democratic institutions. Since the January 6th insurrection, six of the biggest fossil fuel companies in America – Valero Energy, Marathon Petroleum, ExxonMobile, Chevron, Occidental Petroleum, and ConocoPhillips -- have given nearly $700,000 to the campaign and leadership PACs of the 147 Republican members of Congress who voted against certifying the election and continue to propagate the Big Lie (the voter fraud cost Trump the election) that led to the attack. Koch Industries corporate PAC has provided $775,00 alone. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has termed these politicians the Sedition Caucus. No member of the Sedition Caucus received more from these companies than House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, who pulled in $75,000 from the six companies.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy, Koch Industries was the biggest corporate donor ($14 million) to super PACs and other outside groups that spent money to help initially elect many of the 147 House and Senate Republicans who voted to overturn the elections and disenfranchise millions of voters. Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity advocacy group and its affiliated super PAC spent close to $18 million on ads to elect some of the members who attempted to decertify the election.

Rolling Back Our Democracy and the Health of the Planet

By wielding their enormous political-economic power, the polluter-industrial complex (PIC) has come to control vast swaths of America’s political landscape at both the state and federal levels. These are the sectors of business profiting the most from a weakening of American democracy and climate change legislation. In order to further roll back environmental regulation, and to hold the emerging climate justice movement in check, the PIC is engaging in a series of maneuvers designed to colonize and restructure the state in its favor – to further consolidate control over the government at all levels. At the heart of this strategy is an effort to suppress the voting rights of Indigenous peoples, citizens residing in low-income communities of color, young people, and progressive sectors of the White working class. 

These are the very people on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Latino/a (69 percent) and Blacks (57 percent) are more likely to be alarmed or concerned about climate change than are Whites (49 percent). Other recent national surveys find that people of color report greater concerns about global warming, climate change, and environmental threats to personal lifestyles than Whites. About eight-in-ten U.S. Latino/a people surveyed say addressing global climate change is either a top concern or one of several important concerns to them personally, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey. About seven-in-ten Latino/a adults say climate change is affecting their local community. 

As a result, people of color are more likely to vote for pro-environment candidates. And candidates of color elected to represent communities of color have the strongest pro-environment and climate change records in Congress. The League of Conservation Voters released an environmental scorecard in 2017, and revealed that representatives of color are leading the way in environmental protection. The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) received a near-perfect score of 98 percent. Next came the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) with 90 percent and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) trailing close behind at 89 percent.

Efforts by the PIC to roll back the voting rights of people of color are also fueled by the recent successes of the environmental justice (EJ) movement to halt the building of new pipelines, refineries, industrial facilities and other fossil fuel infrastructure in states all across the country. As seen in the struggles against the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, this growing movement for climate and environmental justice seeks to address the connections between poverty, racism, climate change, and the ecological problems in America’s inner-city neighborhoods, barrios, Native lands, Chicano farming districts, and poor rural communities of color. Pressing for greater economic equity and political democracy, such as the right to know about hazards facing the community, this movement is mobilizing people of color and segments of the working class to fight climate change, industrial pollution, toxic dumping, uranium mining, and other environmental dangers.

Despite this assault on our democracy, there is cause for optimism. As seen in the Black Lives Matter movement, Indigenous mobilizations at Standing Rock, and other struggles, people of color all across the country are rising up to challenge systemic racism, voter suppression, police brutality, climate and environmental injustice, and the attacks on their rights as citizens to fully participate in America’s democratic institutions. The future of our democracy, as well as the fate of the planet, are dependent upon the success of these [and other] popular struggles. 

We have the power to create a vision of a more just and sustainable future that can inspire and empower millions of people to join the cause. And by linking hands with youth and White working-class and middle-class communities, we can build a mass-based, multi-racial, multi-class, intergenerational climate justice movement capable of taking on and defeating the most powerful corporations on Earth that make up the polluter-industrial complex.

 At the Global Center for Climate Justice, we are helping to build such a movement. If we have your attention, read our latest report on the intersection of Voter Suppression and Climate Justice and learn what the movement can do to right corporate wrongs.

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